Why I own a local newspaper (and thoughts on their AGM)

The Bristol Cable is a newspaper, mostly. (Free-to-access, as they wisely print on the front.) It’s also a website and probably an instagram or something too.

And it’s a member-owned cooperative. There are 1,600+ members. I’m delighted to be one, because I worry about the quality of democracy in the UK and I suspect the UK’s media situation isn’t terribly good for us. And it seems fairly obvious that a newspaper owned by its readers is going to serve its readers. A newspaper owned by some tax exile living on an island somewhere is going to serve… well, you get the idea. 

And it’s doubly clever, because it’s a freesheet. You don’t have to be a member to read it. Over 30,000 copies are distributed around Bristol. So it’s like the Metro, but it’s a proper actual newspaper, not just a collection of photos of celebrities papped as they stumble out of nightclubs.

A proper, actual newspaper doing actual, proper journalism — uncovering the stories that affect people’s lives, throwing a spotlight on the abuse of power, and diving into interesting sub-cultural stuff that makes Bristol an interesting place to live.

I find journalism quite exciting — I’m a journalism romantic. In my head I imagine newsrooms like those in All The President’s Men, or Spotlight.

As Joseph Pulitzer said:

“…always fight for progress and reform, never tolerate injustice or corruption, always fight demagogues of all parties, never belong to any party, always oppose privileged classes and public plunderers, never lack sympathy with the poor, always remain devoted to the public welfare, never be satisfied with merely printing news, always be drastically independent, never be afraid to attack wrong, whether by predatory plutocracy or predatory poverty.”

But if you’ve ever read anything like Nick Davies’ excellent Flat Earth News — or seen the final series of The Wire — you’ll know that this romantic view of journalism is largely outdated. Particularly at the local level, where newsrooms have been cut and cut; where staff are expected to churn out multiple stories per day (hence “churnalism”) and are judged on how many clicks those stories get online; and where hundreds of ‘local’ titles — scattered across the entire country — are owned by a small, centralised group of large publishing companies.

So, in that popular phrase of the moment, it’s time to take back journalism. Let’s own (and, crucially, govern) our news media. Own the Bristol Cable from just £1 a month. Help out, whether you’re local or not! Then you can describe yourself as a media proprietor at parties. You can marry people far younger than yourself and have Prime Ministers eating out of your hands, etc. No, not really. That’s the opposite of what we’re trying to achieve here.

The Cable holds an annual AGM at which members take decisions on the direction of the paper. I went to their third such meeting at the beginning of April, and it was great! I’ve been meaning to write feedback on it for ages — and then realised I should also make the feedback open, in case you fancied setting up a cooperative and wondered about how to run AGMs. It also has interesting lessons for my day job at Democracy Club — particularly as to how to engage volunteers in the governance of the company.

Here’s my feedback, in order of big-things to little-things on the evening and the paper generally. I’m sure these run into resource constraints or perhaps have been tried before, but, anyway:

  • Is it wise to elect an ‘advisory board’ of the kinds of people who put themselves forward for this stuff? Could the Cable experiment with sortition instead — every member has an equal chance of being ‘called up’ to serve on the board for a year or two? I think this would fit with the ‘for the people, of the people’ nature of democratic media ownership.
  • It was clear that the Cable needs to grow the membership to survive — I liked the charts showing the growth of membership and the modelling of how/when/if the paper would break even. Budgets are hard things to get people interested in — but it was done well!
  • But…it wasn’t at all clear how members could help! If the paid co-ordinators don’t have time to mobilise members, perhaps some kind of unconference might be the answer to this: let members self-organise around what they think is more urgent and important.
  • On membership growth: T-shirts! I would probably give more per month if I got a ‘free’ t-shirt or whatever. There’s no shame in applying aggressive membership growth principles to the Cable. Beg, borrow or steal some staff expertise from the mega-membership organisations in the UK (the National Trust, RSPB, RSPCA, etc) — what can we learn from them? Fancy events, dinner clubs, exclusive access, whatever.
  • More still: use the members to recruit new members. Set up a members’ leaderboard, have a rewards system, celebrate the successful ones — hell, employ them! Or, if printing and delivering more papers is the best way to recruit members, then do that — take out a loan if necessary. Go sign-up members in the streets, on station platforms, go door-to-door — whatever — if we believe this is important, we’ve got to make it financially viable!
  • Grant applications — there was much umming and ahhing over the Google News Initiative funding application. See above: do what it takes to get to viability. I hope someone’s also approaching the Big Lottery, Bertha, Knight, Sloan and Skoll funds, off the top of my head.
  • Focus groups with members — what do they love about the paper? What were their favourite stories? Our table mostly agreed that there was a bit of ‘hard news’ fatigue — you’ve got to lighten it with stuff like the lovely photo essay on racing in an Asda car-park. And then use the members to give rise to stories too — use the members as your network. We own the paper — we want you to break the best stories, to get to the best sources. There’s also something about doing hyperlocal stuff — having regular columnists from particular patches. BS5 represent!
  • I would have loved a backgrounder or intro to “How It All Works” for first-timers. Over the course of the evening, mainly from the fact I was sat at a table with people who’d been to earlier AGMs, I learnt that: the Cable is run by ‘co-ordinators’ — there’s no editor; that around 30,000 copies are distributed to cafes etc, but also dropped through doors in certain parts of town; and a few other tidbits that would have been great to learn at the beginning. I’ve obviously also come late to the original decision to print a newspaper, as opposed to being a digital-first organisation, the reasons for which I can guess, but a précis would have been great.
  • Run an alpha AGM! Test the workshop exercises on small groups to see where people get stuck before you roll them out to 100+ people in a large hall.
  • What, no twitter #hashtag? But well done on the crèche.
  • Have a chairperson and speakers, rather than a list of speakers all sorting themselves out. This can help time and structure. (That said, the pace of the evening was excellent — no session or speaker seemed to go on, the evening flew by). Good range of speakers — lots of women, who mostly went first: good stuff.
  • Their were loads of ideas and thoughts pinging around each table, which didn’t fit into the neat A3 workshop sheets we’d been given. Instruct one person on each table to capture the discussion generally (or provide blank sheets of paper instead).
  • Oh, the samosas were excellent, and access to beer/cider made the evening feel more informal, but probably weakened the quality of contributions as the night wore on. Do the AGM first, then have an after-party second.

It was an excellent evening, and I hope to get more involved, perhaps once these pesky elections are out of the way.

Just gonna leave this link here again: join as a member here!


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